On Russia, a senator’s deception, and a timeline of Trump frustration

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley’s accusation that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer lied about President Trump and the Russia investigation — that Schumer said the president was under investigation after he, Schumer, had been specifically told by the FBI that Trump was not — is shedding new light on the events that led to the president’s rising frustration over the Russia probe, the FBI, and Democrats who sought to make political hay out of Trump’s troubles.

Start in January. As inauguration day approached, the Trump-Russia affair dominated media talk. The central question, then as now, was whether Trump or his associates colluded with the Russians to try to influence the 2016 election. And the root of the president’s frustration was the same: he had been assured, by the highest levels of law enforcement, that he was not under investigation, while at the same time the impression grew — fed by officials who knew otherwise — that he was under investigation.

On January 6, when Trump was president-elect, FBI Director James Comey met with him to tell him about the so-called Russia dossier, which, among other things, described alleged Trump sexual encounters in a Moscow hotel. (Comey later called the dossier “unverified.”) Comey later noted that Trump did not ask whether he, Trump, was being investigated personally, but that Comey, on his own initiative, “offered that assurance.”

On January 27, Comey again told the president that he was not under investigation.

Fast forward to March. The Russia controversy had grown, not diminished. On March 9, Comey briefed the so-called Gang of Eight — Mitch McConnell, Charles Schumer, Paul Ryan, and Nancy Pelosi, plus the chair and ranking member of both House and Senate intelligence committees. On March 15, Comey briefed Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Grassley and top committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Comey told them all that Trump was not under investigation.

So by March 15, all of the top leadership of Congress and the relevant committees had heard from the FBI director himself that Trump was not under FBI investigation.

On March 20, Comey made a bombshell announcement before the House Intelligence Committee:

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

When a Democratic member of the committee asked Comey, “Was Donald Trump under investigation during the campaign?” Comey replied, “I’m not going to answer that.” When the same member asked, “Is [Trump] under investigation now?” Comey said, “I’m not going to answer that.”

Given all the breathless reporting of the previous months, a listener might reasonably infer that Trump was under investigation — a contention the leaders of Congress knew at the time to be false.

Some were upset at the impression Comey left. The same day Comey testified, March 20, Grassley tweeted, “FBI Dir Comey needs to be transparent + tell the public what he told me about whether he is or is not investigating @POTUS.” And what Comey told Grassley, of course, was that Trump was not under investigation.

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But then the next day, March 21, Schumer, who had been briefed by Comey on March 9 that the president was not under investigation, took to the floor of the Senate. He called on lawmakers to delay the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch until the Russia matter was resolved. Republicans held up President Obama’s Court choice for nearly a year, Schumer said, but “are now rushing to fill the seat for a president whose campaign is under investigation by the FBI.”

Schumer appeared to be speaking carefully; he said Trump’s campaign was under investigation. But then he became much less careful with his words. “You can bet if the shoe were on the other foot and a Democratic president was under investigation by the FBI, the Republicans would be howling at the moon about filling a Supreme Court seat in such circumstances,” Schumer said.

“After all, they stopped the president who was not under investigation from filling a set with nearly a year left in his presidency,” Schumer continued. “It is unseemly to be moving forward so fast on confirming a Supreme Court Justice with a lifetime appointment while this ‘big gray cloud’ of an FBI investigation hangs over the presidency.”

Schumer’s point was entirely clear: President Trump was under investigation. Of course, Comey told Schumer less than two weeks earlier that was not the case.

On March 30, Comey had another conversation with Trump in which, for a third time, he told Trump that Trump was not under FBI investigation. In the same conversation, as later described by Comey to the Senate, Comey told Trump that he had “briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump.”

So by March 30, Trump knew that Comey had 1) told the president he was not under investigation; 2) told the House and Senate leadership that the president was not under investigation; and 3) told the president that he had told the House and Senate leadership that the president was not under investigation.

The only people who hadn’t gotten the message were the American people. No one knew that better than Trump, who, by Comey’s account, told Comey repeatedly, “We need to get that fact out.”

But the fact did not get out. Instead, things got worse.

On May 3, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal went perhaps farther than other Democrats in trying to push the idea that the president was under investigation.

“You have confirmed, I believe, that the FBI is investigating potential ties between Trump associates and the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, correct?” Blumenthal asked the director.

“Yes,” said Comey.

“And have not, to my knowledge, ruled out anyone in the Trump campaign as potentially a target of that criminal investigation, correct?”

“Well, I haven’t said anything publicly about who we’ve opened investigations on,” replied Comey. “I briefed the chair and ranking on who those people are. And so I can’t — I can’t go beyond that in this setting.”

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“Have you ruled out anyone in the campaign that you can disclose?”

“I don’t feel comfortable answering that, senator because I think it puts me on a slope to talking about who we’re investigating,” replied Comey.

“Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?”

“I don’t — I don’t want people to over-interpret this answer,” said Comey. “I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that, then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.”

“But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?”

“Correct,” said Comey. “We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.”

“So potentially,” Blumenthal continued, “the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?”

“I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that seems to be unfair speculation,” said Comey. “We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

Given everything else that has been said about the Russia matter, would a reasonable listener come away with the impression that the president was under investigation? Probably so. And just for emphasis, the next day Blumenthal appeared on the cable news program Trump loves to hate, “Morning Joe,” to press his case.

A few days later, on May 9, Trump, frustrated with the two-faced nature of the investigation, fired Comey. In his firing letter, Trump said that Comey had assured him on three separate occasions that he, Trump, was not under investigation — an assertion met with great skepticism in the reporting of the firing.

Two days later, on May 11, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a business meeting. At that meeting a clearly unhappy Grassley discussed the question of whether Trump was under FBI investigation. Remember, at that time, the public did not know the truth. But Grassley did.

“Mr. Comey testified before the Judiciary Committee last week,” Grassley began. “Sen. Blumenthal asked him whether the FBI had ruled anyone out as a potential target of the investigation of allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. In response, Mr. Comey stated: ‘Well, I haven’t said anything publicly about who we’ve opened investigations on. I briefed the chair and ranking on who those people are.'”

“Mr. Comey did brief Ranking Member Feinstein and me on who the targets of the various investigations are,” Grassley continued:

It would not be appropriate for me to reveal those details before the professionals conducting the investigations are ready. So I will not answer any questions about who are targets of the ongoing Russia investigations. But I will say this: Shortly after Director Comey briefed us, I tweeted that he should be transparent. I said he should tell the public what he told Senator Feinstein and me about whether the FBI is or is not investigating the president. On Tuesday, the president’s letter said that Director Comey told him he was not under investigation. Senator Feinstein and I heard nothing that contradicted the president’s statement.

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Feinstein agreed that what Grassley had said was “accurate.”

Neither Grassley nor Feinstein, bound by the restriction that the briefing from Comey was secret, could come out and say that Comey had told them Trump was not under investigation. So they danced around the topic.

That was May 11. It wasn’t until June 8, when Comey, by that time a private citizen, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he admitted Trump was never under investigation — and that, just as Trump said, Comey had assured the president three times that he wasn’t under investigation.

Comey’s admission seemed to make Grassley more frustrated. For all those weeks and months, while speculation about a Trump investigation raged in the press, Comey knew the truth, and told top members of Congress the truth, and yet in public a misimpression was allowed to grow.

And so last Wednesday, Grassley took to the Senate floor to address the issue again. His target was Comey, but also Schumer. Back in March, the minority leader knew the truth — he had been told by the director of the FBI himself — but fed the fire by publicly saying Trump was under investigation. Grassley denounced “media hysteria” set off by remarks like Schumer’s.

“I have to note something else here,” Grassley said:

Mr. Comey didn’t just tell the president, Senator Feinstein, and me that the president was not under investigation. He also had told the Gang of Eight. Of course, the Gang of Eight includes the Senate Minority Leader, Sen. Schumer. But even after Mr. Comey told the Gang of Eight that the president was not under investigation, the minority leader told the media he was. That helped feed the media hysteria. The minority leader even tried to say that the Senate shouldn’t vote on the Supreme Court nomination because the president was under investigation. And the whole time, he knew it wasn’t true.

Those were pretty strong words between senators.

Now, Grassley said, there is still baseless speculation about the Russia case. Grassley called for it to stop. Of course, it won’t. But even if it somehow did stop, a lot of damage has already been done.